Even on U.S. soil, foreign Chinese students are “far from Beijing supervision,” according to Gordon Chang ’73 J.D. ’76 in a policy debate Tuesday night.
Chang, author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World released in 2006, served two terms as University trustee. He has lived and worked in China for nearly two decades. His work on China and North Korea has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and National Review.
“As people have commented, Chinese students have become the long arm of authoritarianism,” Chang said. “I would like to rephrase that and say that they’ve become the long arm of Chinese totalitarianism.”
Chang said that in the United States, Chinese students probe faculty suspiciously, engage in abusive conduct and harassment with other students, heckle criticizers of China and pressure universities to suspend activities. Their demands to remove research for political concerns infringe on academic freedom.
Similarly, upon their return to China, authorities harass, intimidate, and interrogate students, and even kidnap people of Chinese descent, Chang said. Through this process, Chinese students, professors, and scientists become “nontraditional collectors” of intelligence.
Chang described some of China’s influence activities on American campuses as “impermissible” — infringing on academic freedom and violating sovereignty and laws. He said that while some are “harmless, unproductive, even amusing,” others are grave.
According to Chang, Chinese activities operate through two types of institutions: the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, whose chapters are funded and sometimes directed by the Embassy and consulates — though these relationships stay hidden for the most part — and Confucius Institutes, educational organizations meant to teach Chinese language, but that disseminate culture, information, and politics.
“While legal, it shows mal-intent,” Chang said. “They are not there to learn.”
Like CSSA, Confucius Institutes keep their “murky” relationships with U.S. educational institutions private. But contracts published by the National Association of Scholars and cited by Chang reveal that Confucius Institutes forbid defamation by universities. Under this “grant of immunity,” they organize demonstrations and speaking arrangements with minimal supervision. Chang said there are currently 107 Institutes in the U.S.
Chang champions an open society despite dangerous Chinese influence — opposite of Stephen Miller, President Trump’s senior advisor, who recommends a ban on Chinese student visas. As victims of these surveillance activities, students and professors should not be punished, according to Chang.
“One of the strengths of America is that we are open,” he said. “The last thing we need to do is create a campaign of fear and intimidation against a racial group.”
Instead, he proposed four calls to action. First, to disband CSSA chapters that hide or misreport funding against university disclosure policies. Chapters should be registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Second, Chang suggested a tighter hold on ministry agents, who feel emboldened by too much free reign on U.S. soil.
Third, no educational institutions funded by the federal government should have Confucius Institutes. Fourth, keeping institutions open but with a political emphasis could stop Communist Party members from abusing their first amendment rights, according to Chang.
“If we fail, we know one thing is going to happen — that the openness that all of us enjoy, Cornell and elsewhere, is going to become a thing of the past,” said Chang. “Like Supreme Court Justices say, the Constitution is not a suicide map.”
Chang attended Cornell following his dad’s footsteps who came to campus in 1945 for a Master’s degree in civil engineering. Two of his three sisters, also Cornell alumni, encouraged him to go as well.
“This for me is personal because we are a Chinese Cornell family,” he said. “When we talk about this subject, it is actually not something theoretical.”
At the end, Chang addressed Chinese students at Cornell.
“The Chinese students on this campus, I wish for you what my father had, which was the experience of freedom,” he said. “If you choose to go back, I hope that you bring what you’ve picked up at Cornell and in American society, and you use that on your own to figure out what’s best for China.”
The talk was followed by a policy debate among students in the audience, who spoke against the vilification of Chinese students and emphasized our open American society.
“This is a conflict that we have with the Chinese government, not the Chinese people,” said Michael Johns, Jr. ’20. “As people, the worst thing we can do is to make this a cultural conflict when it really isn’t.”
“In the spirit of [freedom of speech and sharing of ideas], I think the solution should not be to further oppress students on campus,” added Evan Mahoney-Bostrom ’20. “I think the best way to demonstrate that our method is better is by continuing to allow them in our space.”